Mary Katharine Goddard

Printer of the Declaration

When one thinks of the Declaration of Independence, one thinks of Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and all of those other white dudes who signed it. Women generally do not enter the picture, because women were not allowed in politics at that time. Despite this, one woman’s name can be found on many of the official copies of this seditious document – Mary Katharine Goddard.

Mary Katharine was born in the colony of Connecticut in June of 1738. Her mother, Sarah Updike Goddard saw to it that both of her children, Mary Katharine and the younger William, were taught Latin, French and the classics in literature. Her father, Giles, was a doctor and when he died in 1757, left a valuable estate to his wife. When William came of age in 1762, the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where William borrowed money from his mother to open the first printing business in the colony. While William technically owned the business and started the newspaper, The Providence Gazette, it was Sarah and Mary Katharine who ran the business. This especially became evident in 1765, when William moved to Philadelphia, with more of his mother’s money, to start a new print shop and the newspaper, The Philadelphia Chronicle.

Realizing that William could not run the shop in Philadelphia on his own, the shop in Rhode Island was sold and Sarah and Mary Katharine moved to Pennsylvania in 1768. Two years later, Sarah Goddard past away, leaving Mary Katharine to run the business on her own. Mary Katharine had a keen business acumen, turning the Philadelphia shop into one of the largest in the colonies. She was able to do this despite her brother’s frequent arrests for public outbursts and for writing inflammatory pieces in the Chronicle. Growing tired of Philadelphia, William moved to Baltimore in 1773 where he started the Maryland Journal.

History repeated itself, and in February of 1774, Mary Katharine closed yet another successful business and paper in order to follow her brother. With her firmly ensconced running the business, William ventured into a new business scheme. Leaving the printing business, he set up a new intercontinental postal system that would operate in opposition to the British system already in place. To set this up, he had to travel throughout the colonies.

With William no longer in Maryland, Mary Katharine became the official publisher of the Maryland Journal on May 10, 1775 when she changed the masthead to read, “Published by M.K. Goddard.” Despite her good standing in the community, Mary Katharine chose to use her initials instead of her full name and thus remain androgynous and avoid sexist reprisals. This publication made Mary Katharine one of the first female publishers in the colonies.

1775 contained a second first for Mary Katharine, she was named the Postmaster of Baltimore for her brother’s postal system, making her the first female postmaster in Colonial America. Because of her double duty as publisher of a newspaper and postmaster, Mary Katharine found herself at the center of an information exchange. She was often able to beat her competitors – even those from other colonies - to big stories because all correspondence travelling from the North to the South and vice-versa went through her. The infamous encounters at Lexington and Concord, that effectively started the American Revolution, were reported in the Maryland Journal before many other larger publications.

Despite the distinct advantage that being the postmaster of Baltimore provided, Mary Katharine was still subject to the cost inflation of the war that hit all printers. Not just in the cost of goods and running her business, but many of her regular customers could no longer afford the indulgence of a newspaper subscription. For those who no longer had the cash to pay, Mary Katharine accepted barter, generally in the form of food. She also added a bookbindery onto the print shop, so she could sell blank books to businessmen and politicians, to help offset the lost income from the paper. During a time when many printers and papers were forced to close their doors, either temporarily or permanently, the Maryland Journal never missed an edition between the years 1775 – 1784. Mary Katharine also managed to keep the post going throughout the war, even when it meant paying the post-riders out of her own pocket.

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress voted for independence from Britain. This decision was made official in the Declaration of Independence and the text was read aloud at assemblies and reprinted up and down the colonies. However, as this was a treasonous document, any man proven to be associated with it could be summarily executed. Therefore, the text of the Declaration was reprinted, but the authors remained officially unnamed. As the delegates from each state signed, they also remained officially unnamed. 

As British troops closed in on Philadelphia later that year, the Continental Congress retreated to Baltimore, Maryland, to continue their business. Once situated in the house and tavern of Henry Fite, Congress was pleased to discover the Goddard’s printing company conveniently nearby. Mary Katharine had proven herself to be a professional newspaper editor who was capable of reporting on events without letting her own beliefs and opinions cloud the story, and thus Congress entrusted her to print the resolutions they enacted while seated in Baltimore. She was also the obvious choice, in January of 1777, to print the broadsides of the Declaration of Independence that would not only be authenticated by Congress, but include the names of all of the signers. This would be the first printing of the document, explicitly intended for preservation.

The inclusion of the names of the signers, would effectively force those men to put their money where their mouth was. Like Hernan Cortès, who burned his ships when he arrived at the new world, the Congress President, John Hancock, knew the signers would have to back the revolution, both vocally and fiscally, because once their identities were officially confirmed their very lives would depend on its success. This printing would prove their treason to Britain even if the original parchment was destroyed.

Mary Katharine could have easily printed the broadsides without any identification of who the printer was on the document itself. Instead, in what may have been her only printed political statement, she included at the bottom of each print, “printed by Mary Katharine Goddard.” Unlike the Maryland Journal masthead, she used her full name, placing herself in treasonous waters along with the men who had signed. These prints were authenticated by Congress and one was sent to each state for preservation amongst the state’s important documents.
At the end of the war, William Goddard returned to Baltimore. With the two siblings now in such close proximity they soon quarreled and William took control of his company. Mary Katharine then quit, or was more likely forced to quit. The exact cause of their quarrel is unknown, however, as Mary Katharine filed five lawsuits against her brother in the following years, the cause was more likely jealousy based as opposed to any legitimate business decision. At least Mary Katharine still held her position as the Postmaster General. That is until 1789.

After the ratification of the Constitution, Samuel Osgood was named Postmaster General of the United States, and he fired Mary Katharine saying that the postmaster of Baltimore would be required to do more travelling than a woman was able to handle. As many other female postmaster’s retained their jobs, Mary Katharine’s removal was seen as sexist and a political move because Osgood wanted to reward one of his colleagues with the position. Mary Katharine appealed to George Washington and Congress to get her job back, even submitting a petition signed by over 200 businessmen of Baltimore saying that in her position she had provided, “universal satisfaction to the community.” Her appeals fell on deaf ears, and the position was given to a man.

With the print company, the newspaper and the postmaster position gone, all that Mary Katharine had left was the bookstore she had established during the war. She died on August 12, 1816, leaving what personal property she had left to her black maid and companion.

Today, Mary Katharine’s petition for her job as the Baltimore Postmaster can be seen in the National Archives, and a copy of the Goddard print of the Declaration of Independence can be seen at the Maryland Hall of Records. No known verified image of Mary Katharine Goddard exists.


**As can be expected with anything of historical import, the validity of the claim that Mary Katharine Goddard printed the first official copy, with signers, of the Declaration of Independence has been questioned. Historians point to two distinct aspects of her broadside as proof that she had access to the original document. The first and most obvious is that her broadside was the first to use the exact title as written on the original -  “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America." No printing before hers used this exact wording.

The second proof is a bit more complicated and comes from the names of the signers. In those days, standard practice dictated that when delegates from multiple states would sign a document, the delegates would group their signatures together by state, starting with the Northern most state on the left side then move in columns across the page to the Southern most state. Thus, the delegates from New Hampshire would be in the upper left side of the signature area, with the Georgia delegates to the far right with any excess room beneath them.

For whatever reason, the signers of the Declaration of Independence broke with this tradition. They still signed from Northern most state to Southern most state, but they moved from right to left across the page, placing the three Georgia delegates all by themselves in the far left column. Mary Katharine's print shows this discrepancy. The first delegates listed on her broadside in the left hand column are from Georgia. 

Unlike the original, she labels the states, I would guess as an aid for people who don't know each delegate, and she places the name of Matthew Thornton in with his state of New Hampshire, instead of with the Connecticut delegates. He apparently signed in the wrong place. She also uses the abbreviations that the signers used instead of their full names - Th. Jefferson instead of Thomas Jefferson.

She did however, make a mistake. Like any printer worth their salt, she set the document to read from left to right, including the signatures. As this was opposite how the document was signed, her first column contains Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Maryland instead of only Georgia.  By doing this, she not only printed the columns wrong, but mixed up the order of the states.  From right to left, the order of the states on the original read north to south -  NH, MA, RI, CT (col 1), NY, NJ (col 2), PA, DE (col 3), MD, VA (col 4), NC, SC (col 5), and GA (col 6). On her print from left to right, they are - MA, RI, CT (col 1), DE, NY, NJ, NH (col 2), VA, PA (col 3), and GA, NC, SC, MD (col 4). Mary Katharine's states do not read north to south.

How does this prove that she had access to the original while other printers didn't? Because subsequent printings of the Declaration of Independence made the exact same mistake. If those printers had had access to the original document, one would think they would have corrected the mistake.**
*Originally appeared on Patreon